MOUNT PLEASANT – While some U.S. airlines worry about a potential pilot shortage in the near future, the flight school at the Schuylkill County/Joe Zerbey Airport has eager students looking to take to the skies.
Now in its fifth year of operation at the airport, Bright Sky LLC is a private company that provides flight training, air tours and aircraft rentals.
“That’s what we do. We train people for those jobs,” Greg Solga, an instructor and president at the school, said last week.
Solga, Orwigsburg, is also a captain for US Airways Express.
“It all starts at a little flight school like this,” he said.
There are about 25 to 30 students at the school looking to acquire various levels of certifications, he said.
Bright Sky bought its fourth airplane about four weeks ago. The latest addition to the fleet, a Piper Arrow, is more complex than the others and has retractable wheels. Solga said the plane makes more certifications available at the airport.
“They can train here from start to finish,” Solga said. “There is nothing we can’t offer here that a big school in Florida can and at a fraction of the cost.”
Solga said before the new plane, students had to finish their training at other airports, such as those in Reading and Allentown.
“It was unfortunate to see them go out of the county to finish their training,” Solga said. “This is an exceptional flight school and students can complete all the necessary certifications to get a job in aviation.”
It appears as though those jobs will be available.
According to a January article in USA Today, a wave of pilots will soon be reaching the federally mandated retirement age of 65. The jobs, however, are becoming available just as new rules go into effect in August requiring co-pilots to have 1,500 flight hours, the same as the captains. Co-pilots previously needed only 250 hours.
The change is the result of a demand for new safety requirements after an airplane crash that killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009.
Solga said the new requirements may intimidate those looking to enter the field, but not those at Bright Sky.
Brett Kozura, 23, of Minersville, received his flight instructor certificate in April and recently joined the school as an instructor.
“I always knew this was what I wanted to do,” Kozura said. “I never wanted to be stuck behind a desk in an office. My office is a couple thousand feet in the air.”
Kozura said both his parents are pilots and his first airplane ride was at the Schuylkill County/Joe Zerbey Airport. He received his private pilot’s license at age 19 and had all his training at the airport.
“You can’t beat the opportunity here,” Kozura said.
Kozura is in his third year studying business at Penn State Schuylkill.
Ben Jones, 20, of Orwigsburg, is also looking to start a career in aviation. He currently has his private, instrument and commercial certificates and is working on his flight instructor license. He said he is one credit from receiving a degree in aviation education from Beaver County Community College.
He said he first flew in a plane when he was 14.
“Once I did it, I was hooked,” Jones said. “I wanted to be a commercial pilot ever since.”
Jones said he would also like to become an instructor but his ultimate goal is to fly for an airline.
“It’s just something that not everyone can do and once you get up there, it’s just freedom,” Jones said. “It’s a confidence builder. You feel like a totally different person. You feel accomplished.”
Bryce Gray, 23, of Catawissa, is looking at a different career in aviation.
Gray said he wants to be a “bush” pilot in Alaska. A bush pilot is someone who flies a small airplane to locations where larger aircrafts or other forms of transportation do not have access, such as wooded areas.
“I just really like to be out in the middle of nowhere,” Gray said.
Gray is working on his private certification and said he already has all his required flight time and is just practicing to complete his test.
He also said he would like to do missionary work throughout the world.
“I’m a Christian and I feel like God is calling me to be a pilot to work with his ministry,” Gray said.
Learning how to fly isn’t just for the young, either.
John Pothering, 54, of Deer Lake, is working on his private license and completed his first solo flight April 26.
Pothering said that as a boy, he used to come to the airport with his father. He said his cousins were pilots and mechanics at the airport.
“I’ve been talking about it ever since then and I guess my wife got tired of hearing about it and she bought me an introduction book and told me to go for it,” Pothering said.
Pothering said he wants to use his license for recreation.
“I like to be able to do things,” he said. “I’ve been aspiring to do it my whole life. It’s a bucket list thing. Where it leads, who knows? Maybe I just get in a plane and just take off to where I want. That’s my goal.”
Ralph Falls, 62, of Palo Alto, started working on his private license in February.
“It’s been a lifelong dream since I was a little boy,” Fall said. “I used to stare up at the sky and watch the planes with my brother. He used to tell me that I was too dumb to fly.”
He said after retiring three years ago, he went to the airport to check out the school and his wife told him to go for it.
“I don’t want to be at the mercy of commercial airliners. I want to be able to rent a plane and go on vacation wherever I want,” he said. “I want to fly to Florida to show my dumb brother that I could do it and tell him, ‘Let’s go for a ride.'”
For the Rev. John Ashbaugh, 59, of the New Life Church of God in Mount Carmel, flying is a father and son activity.
“I was introduced to flying in 1989 in West Virginia and ever since then, I always wanted to get my license but I either didn’t have the time or the money.”
Ashbaugh, Mount Carmel, said he has family all over the country and would like to be able to visit them, especially his wife’s father in West Virginia.
“I want to be able to visit him or bring him here,” he said. “He’s in his 80s and I want to be able to spend as much time with him as I can.”
During one of his lessons in December, Ashbaugh said he took his 24-year-old son on a flight from the county airport to New Jersey. Once in New Jersey, Ashbaugh told him it was his turn.
“That was his first formal lesson,” Ashbaugh said.
Ashbaugh said he likes the school because they are able to coordinate with his schedule.
“They work with what my goals are,” he said.
Lou Ann Swinehart, 53, of Schuylkill Haven, is also working on her private license.
“It was just always something I wanted to do and it never happened. Then one day I decided what the heck, the kids are grown up and now it’s mom’s turn. It’s one of those things where if you don’t do it now, you might not get the chance.”
Swinehart said she also wants to become an instructor and often accompanies other students on their flights to observe and learn.
“Once you get up there, it’s just fabulous,” she said. “It’s just great and you can’t get enough.”
Swinehart said she recommends that anyone with a dream of flying to check out school.
“It’s close, it’s easy and everyone here is great. The students are like family,” she said. “If this was something you always wanted to do, get out and do it.”
For more information about Bright Sky LLC, visit www.brightskyaviation.com.